Artificial compound eye makes sense of natural world

A new artificial compound eye could help scientists understand how insects sense objects at speed or be used to create 3D location systems for robots and autonomous vehicles.

compound eye
Researchers have created a bio-inspired compound eye that is helping scientists understand how insects sense an object and its trajectory with such speed (Image: Le Song, Tianjin University)

In Optics Letters, researchers from Tianjin University in China report their new bio-inspired compound eye, which looks and works like those found in the natural world.

Compound eyes consist of hundreds to thousands of ommatidia, which are repeating units that act as a separate visual receptor.

Compound eyes inspire miniature lenses with greater scope

“Imitating the vision system of insects has led us to believe that they might detect the trajectory of an object based on the light intensity coming from that object rather than using precise images like human vision,” said Le Song, a member of the research team. “This motion-detection method requires less information, allowing the insect to quickly react to a threat.”

The researchers are said to have used single point diamond turning to create 169 microlenses on the surface of the compound eye. Each microlens had a radius of about 1mm, creating a component measuring about 20mm that could detect objects from a 90-degree field of view. The fields of view of adjacent microlenses overlapped in the same way that ommatidia do for most insects.

One of the challenges in making an artificial compound eye is that image detectors are flat while the surface of the compound eye is curved. Placing a light guide between the curved lens and an image detector allowed the researchers to overcome this challenge while also enabling the component to receive light from different angles uniformly.

“This uniform light receiving ability of our bio-inspired compound eye is more similar to biological compound eyes and better imitates the biological mechanism than previous attempts at replicating a compound eye,” Song said in a statement.

To use the artificial compound eye for measuring 3D trajectory, the researchers added grids to each eyelet that help pinpoint location. They then placed LED light sources at known distances and directions from the compound eye and used an algorithm to calculate the 3D location of the LEDs based on the location and intensity of the light.

The researchers found that the compound eye system was able to rapidly provide the 3D location of an object but location accuracy was reduced when the light sources were farther away, which could explain why most insects are near-sighted.

“This design allowed us to prove that the compound eye could identify an object’s location based on its brightness instead of a complex image process,” said Song. “This highly sensitive mechanism suits the brain processing ability of insects very well and helps them avoid predators.”

According to the researchers, the ability of the new bio-inspired compound eye to detect an object’s 3D location could be useful for small robots requiring fast detection from a very lightweight system. It also offers a new way for biologists to study the visual systems of insects.

The researchers are planning to embed the localisation algorithm into platforms such as integrated circuits to allow the system to be incorporated into other devices. They are also developing ways to mass produce the compound eye lenses to reduce the unit cost.

CLICK FOR NEWS